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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 2, Chapter 10 - Patrick's Captivity in Ireland; His Conscience Awakens; Prolonged Anguish


History is no mere register of events. It is the reverent study of the working of a Hand that is profoundly hidden, and yet, at times, most manifestly revealed. To the man of understanding there is no earthly actor so real and palpable as is that veiled agent, who stands behind the curtain, and whose steps we hear in the fall of empires and the revolutions of the world. We have come in our narrative to one of those sudden shiftings of the scenes that betoken the presence and the hand of this great Ruler. A stronger evangelization than any that can ever proceed from Candida Casa, is about to be summoned into existence to keep alive the elements of truth and the seeds of liberty during those ages of darkness and bondage that are yet to pass over Europe. We have already seen the first act of the new drama. It opens in a very commonplace way indeed, and is altogether out of keeping, we should say, with the grandeur of the consequences which are to spring out of it. A band of Irish pirates make their descent on the Scottish shore, and sweep off into captivity a wretched crowd of men and women. Amongst the miserable captives, kidnapped, and carried across the sea, is a youth who is destined to originate a movement which will change the face of northern Europe.

Neither the pirate crew, nor the agonised crowd that filled their galleys, knew who was in the same bottom with themselves, or how momentous their expedition was to prove. Meanwhile, Patrick is lost in the mass of sufferers around him. No one observes or pities the anguish so vividly depicted on the face of the youth. No one seeks to assuage the bitterness of his grief by addressing to him a few words of sympathy or whispering grounds of hope. Unhelped and unpitied he bears his great burden alone. Of his many companions in woe, each was too much absorbed in the sense of his own miserable lot to have a thought to bestow on the misery of those who were his partners in this calamity. Through dim eyes, and with a heart ready to break, Succat sees the Irish shore rise before him, and as the ship that carries him touches the land, he rouses himself from his stupor to see what change of fortune this new evolution in the tragedy, which still seems like a terrible dream, will bring him.

The timing of this event was not the least remarkable circumstance about it. Had this calamity befallen Succat at an earlier, or at a later, period of his life, and not just when it did, it would have been resultless. As a chastisement for the sins and follies of his past career it might have profited, but it would not have availed as a discipline for the life-work before him. This was the main thing in the purpose of Him from whom this affliction came. Patrick's life-trial befell him at that stage of his existence, which of all others is the most critical in the career of a human being. He was now sixteen years of age. It is at this age that the passions rouse themselves with sudden, and sometimes overmastering force. It is at this time of life accordingly that the character of the man in most cases becomes definitely fixed for good or for evil. He stands at the parting of the ways and the road then chosen is that which in all ordinary cases he will pursue to the end.

This, which is the law that rules human life and character in so many instances, is operative with special and almost uniform force in the case of those who have been born in a pious home, and reared, as Patrick was, amid the instructions and observances of religion. If they overpass the age at which Patrick had now arrived without experiencing that engrafting of the soul with a divine principle, which the Bible calls "being born again," they have missed the "new life," and very probably missed it for ever. At all events the likelihood of their ever attaining it grows less and less from that time forward. Habit, day by day, shuts the heart up yet more closely; the sleep of the conscience grows ever the deeper, and the man goes on his way content with such light and pleasure as the world can give him, and never sees the radiance of a new dawn, nor ever tastes the joys of a higher existence.

On this fateful brink stood Patrick when this whirlwind, with force so boisterous, yet so merciful, caught him up, and carried him away from the midst of enjoyments, where he would have fallen asleep to awake no more, and placed him where he could find neither rest nor happiness, because around him was only naked desolation. Not a moment too soon, if we rightly interpret Patrick's own statement, was the grasp of this strong hand laid upon him. He tells us, in his "Confessions," that at this period of his life he fell into a grave fault. What that fault was, neither he himself, nor any of his biographers, have informed us, or even dropped a hint from which we might infer its nature or form. A rather grave offense, we are inclined to think, it must have been, seeing it was remembered, and brought up against him long years after when he was about to enter into the sacred office. His foot had well-nigh slipped, and it would have slipped outright, and he would have fallen to rise no more, had not this strong hand been put forth at this critical moment to hold him up. He would have cast off the form of religion, which was all as yet that he possessed, and would have drifted with the current, and gone the same downward road which was being trodden by so many of his fellow-countrymen of the kingdom of Strathclyde. His ardour of soul, and his resoluteness of purpose would have made him a ringleader in the apostate band; and to show how completely he had emancipated himself from the traditions of his youth, and the faith of his ancestors he would have taken his seat in the chair of the scorner, and mocked at that which he had been taught in his early home to hold in reverence. It is the way of all who forsake "the guide of their youth."

We must follow Patrick across the sea, and see him sent to a new school—seeing the first had been a failure— and put under a new instructor, one who knows how to open the ear, and not the ear only but the heart also. Patrick was not to be like the teachers of the age, and so was not reared in the same school with them. He must be stern, bold, original, but the sickly and sentimental influences of Ninian's school would never have made him such. Rougher forces and hotter fires must melt and mould him. Kidnapped, forced down into the hold with a crowd of captives, tossed on the waters of the channel, and when landed on the Irish shore, sold to a heathen chieftain, and sent into the wilds of Antrim: such beginning had Patrick's new training. In this solitude his mother's voice will speak again, and Patrick will listen now. His heart will open at last, but first it must be broken. The iron will pierce his soul. It is Adversity's school in which he sits, where the discipline is stern but the lessons are of infinite price, and are urged with a persuasive force which makes it impossible not to understand them, and once understood and mastered, impossible ever to forget them. From this school have come forth many of the worlds wisest instructors, and greatest benefactors. Let us mark the youth as we behold him at the feet, not of doctor or pope, but at the feet of a far greater Instructor.

On the mountain's side, day after day all the year through, tending his master's herds of cattle and swine, sits Patrick the son of Calpurnius the Scottish deacon. Was ever metamorphosis so complete or so sudden? Yesterday the cherished son of a Roman magistrate, today a slave and a swine herd. Pinched with hunger, covered with rags, soaked with the summer's rain, bitten by the winter's frost, or blinded by its drifts, he is the very picture which the parable had drawn so long before of that prodigal who was sent into the fields to keep swine, and would fain have filled his belly with the husks on which the animals he tended fed. No one would have recognised in the youth that sat there with famished cheek and mournful eye, the tenderly-nurtured and well-favoured son of Calpurnius, or would have remembered in his hollow and sepulchral voice the cheerful tones that had so often rung out on the banks of the Clyde, and awakened the echoes of that stately rock that graces its shores. Only through this death, and through a death yet more profound, a death within of all past feelings, hopes, and joys, could Patrick pass into a new life. When he awoke from the stupefaction into which the blow, doubtless, had thrown him, he opened his eyes upon blank misery. But he opened them on something besides. He opened them on his former self! on his former life!

How different did that life now appear from what it had seemed, under the hues in which it had clothed itself in his eyes but a few years, a few days before! The colourings in which a self-righteous pride had dressed it, and the less warm but equally delusive lights thrown over it latterly by an incipient scepticism, or a dreary formalism, were now completely dispelled, and it stood out before him as it really was, an unlovable, a ghastly, a guilty thing. Sitting here, the Irish Channel between him and his home, his past severed from his present by this great dividing stroke, he could calmly look at his life as if it were no part of himself, as if it had a subsistence of its own, and he could pronounce a dispassionate verdict upon it. It was a life to be wept over. But when again it refused to sever itself from himself, when it cleaved to him with all its blackness, and he felt that it was and ever would be his, it evoked more than tears; it awakened within him horror. A father's prayers and a mother's counsels, despised and scorned, all rose up before him in the deep silence in which he sat, amid the desolate hills, tending his flock under the gathering blasts. He shuddered as the remembrance came back upon him. He had bowed the knee at the family devotions but he had not prayed; he had but mocked that Omniscient One he professed to worship. These hypocrisies gave him no concern at the time, he was hardly sensible of them, but they lay heavy upon his conscience now. He thought of them, and a darker cloud came between him and the heavens than that which was coming up from the western sea to let fall its rain or hail on the hills amid which he fed his swine. Still darker remembrances came crowding upon him, and he trembled and shook yet more violently. When preachers came from Candida Casa to warn him and his companions of their evil way, and entreat them to turn from it and live, had he not flouted and jeered, or given tacit encouragement to those that did so? Though the grandson of a Christian presbyter, he had helped to swell that chorus of derision and defiance with which these preachers of repentance, and dolorous prophets of evil were sent back to those from whom they came. The retrospect of his hardihood filled him with amazement and horror. Thus, as one's image looks forth from the mirror on one's self, so did Patrick's life look forth from the past upon Patrick in all its vileness and blackness and horror.

But deeper still was his eye made to pierce. It turned inward, and questioned his spirit what manner of life it had led in its thoughts and purposes. He was shown a chamber where lodged greater abominations than any that had deformed him outwardly. His heart, which he believed to be so good, he saw to be full of envy, hatred, malice, revenge, pride, lust, hypocrisy, idolatry, and all the things that defile a man. How was this fountain of evil to be cured, for if not cured, it would send forth even blacker streams in time to come than any that had flowed from it in the past. Where was the salt which, cast into its bitter waters, would sweeten them? This hidden iniquity, this ulcer in the soul, pained and appalled him even more than all the transgressions which had deformed him outwardly and given scandal to others.

Such was the odious picture that rose before the captive youth as he sat ruminating amid the mountains of Antrim; his past life, rather than his vile charge or his heathen master, before him. Such had been; and till his life was cleansed at its source, such would be the son of Calpurnius the Christian deacon. He stood aghast at this veritable image of himself. He felt that he was viler than the vilest of those animals that he tended. "Oh, my sin! my sin! "we hear him cry! What shall I do? Whither shall I flee? It is no imaginary scene that we are describing. "In that strange land," says he, speaking of this period of conviction and agony, "the Lord imparted to me the feeling [1] of my unbelief and hardness of heart, so that I should call my sins to remembrance though late, and turn with all any heart to God." And again he says, "Before the Lord humbled me, I was even as a stone lying in the depth of the mire, and He who is able [2] came and lifted me up, and not only lifted me up but set me on the top of the wall; " that is, made him a corner stone in the spiritual building, for we cannot fail to perceive here an allusion to the beautiful emblem of Scripture which presents the church as a living temple built up of living stones.

While this sore struggle was going on, the outward discomforts of his lot, we may well believe, gave Patrick but little concern. The violence of the storm that raged within made him heedless of the blasts that beat upon him as he watched his herds in the woods and amongst the mountains. The black cloud would gather and burst, and pass away, and the stricken youth, absorbed in the thought of his distant home and his past life, and sick in soul, would hardly be conscious of the pelting rain, or the driving snow, or the bitter furious gusts that were shaking the oaks and fir trees around him. The hail and lightning of the clouds were drowned in the voice of those mightier thunders which came rolling out of a higher sky, and seemed to his ear to emphasise the award of that Book which says, " the wages of sin is death."

The youth had been overtaken by a series of calamities,which singly were overwhelming, and taken together, were worse than death. He had been torn from his home and his native land, he had been robbed of his liberty he kind been sold to a heathen lord, and now he had no prospect before him save that of passing the years of his wretched life in a vile employment. The blow was the more crushing, that all these miseries had fallen upon him in the same moment, and had come without warning. And yet they were to Patrick but as the trifles of a day compared with those darker sorrows which gathered round his soul. These last were the ripened fruits of the evil seed his own hand had sowed. In enduring them he had not even this small consolation that he was suffering by the unrighteous will and cruel power of another. Nor would they pass with the fleeting years of the present life, for death, which is the termination of all other evils, would only deliver him up to an endless misery. This terrible thought was ever present to him as he sat alone amid the desolate hills; it was his companion in the silence of the night. and in the nearly equally profound silence of the day. It was here that his miseries culminated. He was entirely in his master's power, who might for the slightest offense, unrestrained by any feeling of humanity, and without question from any one, doom him to die. But wherein was this master to be feared, compared with that Greater Master, who could kill body and soul? He had lost his liberty, but what was the loss of liberty to one who was in imminent jeopardy of losing himself, and that for ever?

Sleep forsook him, he tells us. He would lie awake for nights on end. From his lowly couch he watched the stars as they passed, each in its appointed place, and at its appointed time, across the sky. He feared as he looked up at them. Their ever-burning fires and silent majestic march, suggested that endless duration of which their vast cycles are but as a hand-breadth. And when he thought of that Eye which was looking down upon him from above these orbs, with a light to which theirs was but as darkness, where, he asked, "shall I find hiding from it? When these orbs shall have paled their fires in an eternal night, this Eye will still be looking down upon me." Where was there night or darkness in all the universe deep enough in which to bury himself, and be unseen for ever?

He now broke out into meanings. When his grief ceased to be dumb, its paroxysm somewhat abated. These moanings were the first feeble inarticulate cries for pardon. Then followed words of supplication. He stood up, like the publican in the temple, and striking upon his breast, cried, "God be merciful to Patrick, the sinner." It was now seen that the lessons of his early home had not been in vain. The seed then sown in his mind appeared to have perished: yet no; though late, that seed began to spring up and bear fruit. Without the knowledge imparted by these lessons, Patrick would never have seen his sin, and without the sight of his sin his conscience would have continued to sleep, or if peradventure awakened, not knowing the way of pardon, he would have been driven to despair. He had heard, on the Sabbath evenings in his Scottish home, that the "King of Heaven is a merciful King." And now, in that far land, and far away from that father from whose lips the once-forgotten but now remembered words had fallen, a sea of trouble all round him, nor help nor pity on earth, he turned his gaze upwards, and said, "I will arise, and go to my Father." He rose, he tells us, before the dawn to pray.

How long Patrick continued under this distress of soul before finding peace, we do not know. It is probable that his conflict lasted with more or less severity for some years. It is not the wont of that Physician who had undertaken his case to dismiss His patients till He has perfected their cure, and made them altogether and completely whole. And there were special reasons in Patrick's case why this severe but most merciful discipline should be prolonged. Patrick's sore had to be probed to the very bottom, and he had to know the malignity of the malady under which he laboured, and the strength with which it holds captive its unhappy victims, not only for his own sake, but for the sake of those many others, to whom he was in after years to act the part of physician. He was to be a Healer of nations. But how could he acquire the insight and tenderness necessary for the right discharge of his grand function—the reverse of the warriors, who goes forth to destroy—and know how deep these wounds go into the soul, and how they rankle there, and be able in his treatment of them to combine perfect sympathy with perfect fidelity—"merciful and faithful" like the great Physician—if he had not himself first been wounded, and made to bleed—aye, bleed unto death, well nigh—before being sent forth to be a healer of others?


Footnotes

1. Aperuit sensum.—Pat. Confessio.

2. Qui potens est.—Ibid.


 

 


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